Quantcast Ryan's Guitars: Red Bear Trading Co., Tuff Tone "Lil' Jazzer" Pick Review

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Red Bear Trading Co., Tuff Tone "Lil' Jazzer" Pick Review

I am usually not one to spend a lot on guitar accessories. I buy strings in bulk and play with cheap plastic picks, for the most part. So a few years ago when I heard of the Red Bear Trading Co.'s $20 picks (yes, $20 each) I thought you'd have to be crazy to spend money like that on a pick. After doing a little research I discovered that they specialize in recreating tortoise shell picks (which are now illegal to make with real turtle shells) by using a material made from animal proteins. The result is a pick that plays and sounds exactly like tortoise shell, is legal to make and does no harm to turtles. Brilliant! These guys also have an impressive, and growing, list of artists playing their picks.

Red Bear makes each pick to order, by hand, in nearly every conceivable size, shape, color and thickness. They also do custom orders with your name stamped on the pick, etc. And when they say "made to order" they mean it; there is no stocked inventory to pull from so it can take several weeks for your order to be fulfilled. Besides the simulated tortoise shell material, Red Bear now offers a new material in a line they call "Tuff Tones" for half the price ($10 each). This is the variety I ordered. The model I chose is the "Lil' Jazzer" with a heavy thickness (1.65mm) and added grip holes drilled into the center for better control. These things are pretty sheer and smooth, so if you are used to having some texture on your picks for grip, I highly recommend the grip holes option. Apart from the lower price, another thing that attracted me to the Tuff Tones picks are their durability. According to Red Bear, they are supposed to be as worry free as any regular plastic pick. The regular Red Bear line, on the other hand, can be a bit more fragile due to the material they are made from.

Apart from the pretty bland beige color, the Tuff Tone pick itself is a work of art. Beautifully cut and finished with a perfect bevel all the way around, each pick is also topped with a nice, clean logo graphic and model name etching. I ordered the standard bevel which is a basic bevel as seen on most picks... a "speed bevel" is also offered which is a more aggressive bevel sanded onto the edges where the pick hits the string near the tip. There is a right-hand and left-hand speed bevel option available.

Now let's get to the real crux of what a good pick is all about: tone, playing action/feel and durability. Starting with tone, I'd have to say this is one of the best sounding picks I've ever tried with an electric guitar. The sound is full, round, warm and articulate... but not so warm that definition is lost. Quite to the contrary, there's a nice balance of highs and lows with this pick. Contrasted with my usual favorite, the Dunlop Jazz III, there is a lack of mid range muddiness in the Lil' Jazzer that I can distinctly hear in the Jazz III as I compare the two.

In terms of playing action and feel, this pick has a presence in your hand. It has a substantial feel between your fingers with each note picked; whereas the Jazz III feels thin and cheap by comparison. The Lil' Jazzer just glides over the strings providing a very smooth, snag-free playing action. Incidentally, this is the main reason I decided to check out these picks. I am in the process of switching my right-hand technique to the Gambale method (economy picking style) which requires a super smooth pick bevel to execute properly. The way I pick causes the Jazz III's to eventually develop a rough edge after some use and requires periodic sanding to keep the action smooth. Plus, the Jazz III isn't the smoothest pick to begin with, so I figured the Red Bear might give me a small advantage with my new technique. Time will tell, but so far so good! My economy picking is much smoother with the Lil' Jazzer and the tone is fantastic.

And finally, the durability factor. This one will take more time, as I just recently acquired the pick. I ordered the standard bevel and literally within a few days of playing the pick has developed its own "speed bevel". Hopefully this wear will level off and the pick will last a good long while. I have no idea how long it might last, but since I am now literally sweeping a large portion of my notes, the edges of my picks see a lot of action. In fact, most of the wear on my picks falls directly on the edges and almost zero on the tip. As I write this I have two more Tuff Tones Lil' Jazzers on order. One is the same exact heavy gauge thickness as the one being reviewed here, and the other is the same model in a medium gauge, which will be closer to the same thickness as a Jazz III. I'll report back once I get them and do a follow up review on which gauge, medium or heavy, works best for me and how good the long-term wear is.

As for tone and playing action I can definitely give these a thumbs up! I feel like my tone path is finally complete... great amps, great guitars, great pickups, premium strings, quality cables and now a quality pick.

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